The American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) recently weighed in on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service proposal to revise its existing special use regulations for issuing or reissuing authorizations for vegetation management along power line rights-of-way.
The groups said that it is important that revisions to the special use regulations are quickly finalized and implemented as intended by Congress to improve decision-making efficiency and offered additional recommendations to provide clarifications and further improve the rule’s implementation.
The focus of the agency’s revisions is to incorporate and implement section 512 under Title V of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), as enacted by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018.
Congress amended the law to establish requirements for the development and approval of operating plans and agreements for vegetation and facility management on national forest system lands within rights-of-way for electric transmission and distribution facilities and on their abutting lands.
The groups fully supported these congressional efforts to help improve the approval process for accessing transmission and distribution infrastructure crossing federal lands.
“If finalized, this proposed rule and related directives will take the next step towards the long-term, cost-effective, and efficient management of electric facilities and vegetation, including hazard trees, necessary to enhance electric system reliability, promote public safety, protect natural resources, and avoid wildfire hazards,” the Association and NRECA said in their Nov. 25 comments.
The groups noted that their members play a vital role in transforming the electric sector, which includes working to improve the resiliency and efficiency of their systems. Some of this infrastructure, including distribution and transmission lines, substations, access roads, and other related facilities are located on national forest system lands. Thus, the associations’ members must acquire special use authorizations to access electric utility rights-of-way, as well as complete necessary facility inspection, vegetation management, and operation and maintenance activities.
These routine and non-routine or emergency activities are a key part of ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of electric services, they noted. “The electric sector is undergoing a transformation, which is changing the way electricity is generated, transmitted, and used. Therefore, we expect to continue to need federal agency permits and approvals.”
Associations cite unreasonable delays for members
The groups noted that their members often have experienced unreasonable delays in receiving agency authorizations to perform vegetation management and O&M work necessary to keep the lights on. This includes instances where requests to remove hazard trees that present a clear risk of damaging infrastructure that can lead to causing outages or other reliability concerns. These damages can lead to greater safety concerns like sparking fires.
Even when the associations’ members receive approvals, they also often face inconsistent terms and conditions that can cause challenges with efficiently managing rights-of-way and electric infrastructure. When fires occur, the Associations’ members are routinely held liable for fire suppression costs, injury, and damages. These are costs that the end-of-the-line consumer must ultimately bear.
“Timely and consistent approvals – especially with the increase in catastrophic wildfires – are essential for the Associations’ members ability to address operational and vegetation management issues” within and adjacent to their rights-of-way, the associations said.
“Such prompt action is necessary to meet mandatory reliability standards, ensure a properly functioning electric grid, and reduce the potential risk of wildfire hazards. Therefore, it is important to the Associations that revisions to the USDA Forest Service special use regulations are quickly finalized and implemented as intended by Congress to improve decision-making efficiency.”
The NRECA and the Association said they support the agency’s efforts to promulgate the rulemaking and offered additional recommendations to provide clarifications and further improve the rule’s implementation.
Consistent implementation within BLM
The groups pointed out that given the linear nature of electric transmission and distribution infrastructure, facilities traverse a myriad of landscapes, which can include both National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management-managed lands.
“It is imperative that the Forest Service and BLM work together to develop and implement this joint process, as envisioned by Congress, for consistent inter- and intra-agency implementation,” the Association and NRECA said.
They urged the agency to have this process in place concurrent with the publication of the final rule to ensure timely, efficient, and consistent reviews and approvals.
“Any delay in developing and implementing this joint process will result in delays in approving proposed plans and agreements, thereby threatening the safe, reliable operation of electric systems and ability to mitigate wildfire hazards. Further, the associations encourage the agency to be transparent with the process so that their members and other stakeholders understand agency expectations upfront. Such transparency will also aid in holding the agency accountable in meeting the review and approval timelines set by Congress.”
Leveraging rights-of-way to limit wildfires
Another recommendation from the associations is to strategically leverage rights-of-way to limit wildfires.
Given that millions of miles of rights-of-way span the landscape across diverse ecosystems, including wildfire-prone areas, there may be opportunities to further leverage some of these rights-of-way and abutting areas, the groups said. “The spread of invasive plants such as cheatgrass, as well as the build up of other flammable native vegetation, can increase fuel loads. This can create or increase wildfire hazards that threaten electric infrastructure.” Properly maintaining vegetation in rights-of-way can prevent the spread of invasive species, provide wildlife habitat, and act as effective fuel breaks to limit and fight wildfires, the Association and NRECA said.
Recommendations in other areas
The associations offered recommendations in several areas including:
- Training agency personnel on electric system requirements;
- Minimizing the need for case-by-case approvals and specify timeframes;
- Clarifying who can designate hazard trees;
- Limiting strict liability; and
- Allowing for the use of unmanned and other emerging technologies
The Associations noted that they also support comments submitted by the Edison Electric Institute and Northwest Public Power Association.